Beside the Friendly Potato: FIRST PRIZE

by James Bernthal

I find a curious comfort in potatoes. We’ve always grown them – always grown too many, forcing most of them into exile in the compost heap.

When I was twelve, I shouted at my father for wasting potatoes. I told him that if he’d been an Irishman a few centuries back… well… And he had hit me, and twanged my braces until the buttons fell off and my back was red. And, still, the potatoes had grown more and more shootey, more and more rubbery, until they were too old for eating; good only for growing more potatoes.

He had the temper of an Irishman. Not with Mummy, he was an angel with Mummy. Because I would have seen something if there had been anything the matter, wouldn’t I? You expect whiskey-fuelled fathers to beat their wives, but I really don’t think he did. There was no need, when I was so malleable a target.

The potatoes quickly became my confidants, perhaps because they were the one thing more pitiable than me. Their cycle was so inevitable and so open. And I don’t think that talking to them is that bizarre. They are like Jesus; they never answer back, and you can thank them for nourishing you but really you know they are only what you make them.

And my father died when he was just forty-five. I was Sixteen. And can you guess what killed him? ‘Complications with the mashed potatoes,’ apparently. Yes, really. Often, I wonder how much of what I said to the roots got through. If maybe they became the first ever crops on a mission. We scattered his ashes in the garden, because Mummy didn’t want to stop asking his permission to leave the house.

I like to imagine the arms he loved to swing at me are somewhere among the compost, where dead potatoes nibble on them.

Mummy’s death made me the man of the house, so to speak. I mean, the property, including the garden, and therefore the potatoes, is all mine. The idea of walking over my dead mother in order to hang up the laundry held no appeal, and, besides, she wanted burying rather than cremating, so we put her in a church graveyard somewhere. I made sure there was something nice on her stone about Jesus and bunny rabbits in Paradise.

But Mummy visits the vegetable patch. I talk to her and she talks back: not in words, but in colours. The flowers on the potato plants had always been a greenish yellow, but in these last few years they have developed and diversified. The colours are pastel shades of pink and lavender. I never knew they could be so beautiful. If Mummy is happy, she makes the flowers pink, and if she is sad, they go blue. It is nice that she still has time for me.

I’m getting to be an old man now. I want to go back to my mother’s breast, where everything is safe and snug and, admittedly a little saggy, but thoroughly protective. I want to revisit my father’s firm fist now that I’ve garnered enough strength to fight back. True, I’m getting weak again, but in this world of ‘what if?’, things like that don’t matter.

None of the potatoes have been quite right. I want the first one back; the one I picked the shoots off when I was four, and nursed like my very own child, or friend. We are all still children, really. My potatoes may be somehow wrong, but they look exactly the same as my very first. And children today look the same as I did. My generation missed something vital, so the next generation was given exactly the same nuances and foibles, the same bon chance.

So I’ve wasted my life, and I cannot fulfil anyone’s needs but my own. My own needs are simple: to smile, to wish, the love, to lie down, with Mummy and Daddy, beside the friendly potato.

James Bernthal is an undergraduate at the University of Chester. He has the not-at-all-sinister ambition of pursuing a career as a crime writer and a funeral director.

  1. #1 by Bob Jacobs on September 12, 2009 - 1:13 pm

    A worthy winner, James. You created a thoroughly enjoyable little story here.


  2. #2 by James E.S. on September 12, 2009 - 8:53 pm

    Congrats, James! That was really well constructed and a great read. Look forward to seeing your next piece

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